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I was an English major, and how anyone can survive that is a miracle. It is only through love that I have survived: love of the language I speak and write, a love that was nearly extirpated by those who explain literature and write the prefaces to anthologies. The experts, that is. 

It was nurtured, however, by many a teacher and professor, who also love the language and its productions. I don’t remember ever having an English teacher who propounded such gobbledygook as the professional explainer class regularly emits. (This, by disclaimer, is a class of which I was once a member, having made my living as a critic.)

I tried my best to write clear prose with understandable ideas, but my fellow guild members too often do the opposite. They can take something so simple and direct, so unimpeachably beautiful and clear, and turn it into a tangled knot of impenetrable theory, catching the flying sparrow in the fine mesh net of academic verbiage. I was, more particularly, an art critic, and I always said that I couldn’t read art criticism, that doing so was like eating an old mattress. 

It is the same for much buncombe written about literature and poetry. Something that should be read for pleasure, understanding or solace turns into a midterm exam, the kind that you have in your recurring dreams when you discover you aren’t wearing any pants. 

I am pretty sure such explainers are cases of arrested development, stuck in the sorrowful stage of the sophomore. The memory of having been once a sophomore myself gives me pause. There was a time when I, like so many other young minds, sought to “decode” a poem, finding the hidden meaning in the symbols therein. As if a poem required an enigma machine to untangle its “true”meaning, found in footnotes at the bottom of the page. 

Is Billy Budd a Christ figure? A victim of patriarchy or capitalist oppression. Perhaps he is a Marxist hero. Maybe, he is just a handsome sailor, like Melville tells us. What we are meant to glean from the story’s reading is inherent in the story itself. 

As Archibald McLeish put it: “A poem must not mean but be.” 

Any good work of literature explains itself, if we are willing to listen, to pay attention and to stay within the work and not require a university seminar to unpack. All this comes to mind because of a short discussion recently about an eight-line poem by William Carlos Williams. And a comment by critic Dave Wolverton who wrote: “The poem was meant to be appreciated only by a chosen literary elite, only by those who were educated, those who had learned the back story…” 

Such ideas raise the hackles. 

The poem in question couldn’t be simpler, more complete, more self-explanatory, but no, Mr. Wolverton tells us we need to take a secret decoder ring to it, to find out what it is “really” about. 

The back story he refers to is of the poet-physician, who was attending the hospital bedside of a dying young girl and happened to look out the window to see a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. First problem: Williams was a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, where it is quite unlikely to find chickens outside a hospital window. More likely a traffic jam. 

Second problem is that despite the widespread retelling of this dying-girl tale, Williams himself tells us the genesis of the poem. It “sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.”

It was first published in 1923, and one head-scratching comment I found suggested the poem was a comment on women getting the vote. How the critic got there from the contents of the poem, I leave to you and perhaps your bong. 

Another sees it as a celebration of the proletariat. This is the kind of stuff that turns high-school students away from poetry and literature and toward auto repair. 

To wit: “The wheelbarrow is an enduring and universal tool, used by people for thousands of years. It is most commonly associated with farming and construction—arguably, the foundation upon which civilization is built. In the poem, the wheelbarrow and its surrounding environment could also nod specifically towards agricultural workers and rural communities. As such, the poem’s contemplation of the wheelbarrow can be read as a meditation on the link between humanity and the natural world—as well as an assertion of the importance of respecting the latter.”

Where is that assertion? Show me the line. 

Elsewhere: “By extension, the wheelbarrow here might be taken to represent the value of the working class. This class — the people actually performing said manual labor, such as farmers, miners, construction workers, etc. — is often stereotyped as being unskilled and unintelligent. Physical work, in general, is often misclassified as ‘lowly’ or ‘simple,’ which ignores the complexity that goes into planting, pollinating, etc. Seeing as this work is often undervalued despite its importance to human survival, the attention given to the wheelbarrow (and, through it, the people who use wheelbarrows) could act as a subtle acknowledgement and celebration of the working class.”

Where do manual laborers spend their time “pollinating?” Et cetera. 

It might be noted that none of any of that shows up in the 16 plain words that comprise the poem. What there is, is a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. They are not symbols, they do not require a gloss. They are, in fact, a wheelbarrow and chickens. It is the ability to see them as just that that is the gift of the poem. They have been separated out of the rest of existence and shown to us as something worthy to be noticed. 

My acquaintance was remembering a common friend who had recently died, who had introduced him to the poem.  

“With my spotty poetry background, I’d never read this gemlike summing up of the power of first impressions. We were probably talking about things that seized our imaginations when we were very young.”

I always took it not as about first impressions, but about the importance of noticing, i.e., paying attention, even to the things you ignore in quotidian life. Paying attention is, for me, tantamount to being alive — I mean really alive, as opposed to merely existing. That is what so much depends on. 

It is also the importance of the senses, as opposed to rationality. So much of what we think is merely done in linguistic categories. House, bird, horse. We tend to value logic and think it is what we hold in opposition to irrationality. But logic has its own pitfalls: It is also thinking in linguistic categories, and so much of what is “logical” is only so in words. Zeno’s paradox never actually prevents Achilles from overtaking the tortoise in a single step. 

As Stephen Fry says over and over, the counter position to superstition and irrationality is not logic, but empiricism. Empiricism is paying attention. In that sense, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. Without it, Galileo is put under house arrest. In this sense, paying attention and sense data are a bundle, inseparable. 

Paying attention to our senses — looking carefully, hearing intently, touching, tasting, smelling — is also the key factor in squeezing the most enjoyment out of this brief moment we spend on the planet (seeming briefer with each birthday). In Keat’s words: “seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue/ can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine.” 

So much depends… 

“Do you remember when you first bumped up against the real world?” Stuart was looking philosophical. “I mean, when you first came to the realization that all was not what it seemed?”

I thought about it for a moment, but then, of course, I realized that Stuart wasn’t so much asking a question about my life, as stating a prologue to his next monologue. 

“It was in high school,” he said. “It was in the 1960s and I was notoriously bored in school. The worst was study hall — really, a holding cell between classes where no one actually studied. I hated it. Where was Temple Grandin when you needed her? We were cattle in a pen. 

Vincent ‘the Chin’

“Mr. Taylor, the Latin teacher, took a liking to me. Not that many kids wanted to learn the ablative. And so, he managed to give me an entire pad of preprinted library passes, so I could spend my time among books, instead of among juvenile delinquents. Did I mention this was northern New Jersey and a large contingent of kids in class were the offspring of made men? Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante had a house not more than 200 yards from where I grew up — he was the famous ‘Oddfather,’ who feigned insanity to avoid criminal prosecution. (One day, years later, when I was in college, I heard on the radio that the entire police department from my town had been arrested for taking bribes.)

“Well, one day, for some reason, I had run out of library passes and was forced to go to study hall. I arrived early and the only other student was Artie Mangano. You have to remember that there is a pecking order in high school. I was a dyed-in-the-wool nerd. I liked books. Artie was the biggest thug around, both physically and in terms of where he ranked. I was his natural target. We had long established that fact.

“We sat near each other saying nothing. Artie may have been reading a comic book. When in walked Mrs. Fisk, the French teacher who was going to be prison guard for the next hour. Mrs. Fisk had a thick accent and no sense of humor.”

“I know the type,” I said. “They are the second lieutenants of the world, right out of OCS.”

“And on the blackboard — and in those days, the board was still slate and was still black — Mr. Taylor had drawn a map of the Roman Empire. There was Illyrium, there was Gallia Cisalpina. Of course, Mr. Taylor’s writing was nearly illegible. He was a scribbler and the map was rather squirrelly. When Mrs. Fisk looked at it, she turned and looked at Artie and me and asked angrily, ‘Who wrote this on the blackboard?’ 

“We didn’t know what she was talking about.

“She clapped her hands to keep our attention. ‘Who wrote this filth? These obscene things? I must have been one of you two.’

“We had no idea what she meant. It was a map of the Mediterranean, albeit, it looked a little like an unraveled ball of yarn. She glared at us, getting louder and more incensed. 

“You two — go down to the vice principal’s office. Now! And tell him what you have done!”

“Our school had the ultimate good cop-bad cop. The principal was the soft-spoken — and unfortunately named — Donald Duff. He took a lot of mocking for that name. The vice principal was the enforcer, the meter-outer of punishment, Mr. Garbaccio, a hard-hearted disciplinarian who resembled nothing so much as Luca Brasi. 

“We walked down the hall, down the stairs and into the office. Artie was used to this routine; I was not. I was both mortified and outraged and at the same time unseemly meek and cowed. We sat in the outer office waiting for Mr. Garbaccio to finish with the miscreants ahead of us in line.

“When it came our turn, I tried to explain to him what was the reality: Mr. Taylor’s map of the Roman world offended Mrs. Fisk, who mistook it for an obscene graffito. 

“ ‘She wouldn’t have sent you down here for nothing,’ he said. Yes, she would, I thought. She was always kind of goofy. I remonstrated and re-explained. Artie said nothing. Since I was a reputed ‘good kid’ and had never been in his office before, and because Mr. Taylor’s handwriting was so well known, Mr. Garbaccio let up the pressure, but that didn’t help and so he said, ‘I understand. But, I’m going to have to give you two points anyway.’

“Discipline for misdemeanors was given out in the form of points. Collect enough and you were suspended. Artie knew the process well. I was a novice. My sense of injustice was boiling. I knew I had done nothing wrong. There is nothing so pure in this world as the flame of outrage in a kid who knows he has been unfairly blamed. 

“Two things of note resulted from this episode. First was that somehow I had acquired an unearned respect from Artie. He no longer bullied me, and in fact, his presence meant that none of his fellow mouth-breathers molested me anymore, either. It was a kind of privileged existence, a pet-nerd. We had shared a visit to Mr. Garbaccio. 

“But the second thing was that I figured out something about the real world: that sometimes form required a knowing injustice for the purpose of maintaining order, that I would have to accept my two points so that Mrs. Fisk wouldn’t be publicly outed as the flibbertigibbet that we all knew she was. The world worked by its own gears and pulleys, and sometimes the innocent get ground up in the machine. 

“You know, when you are in high school and you are given required reading, it usually sails right over your head. You don’t have enough life experience to understand what is going on with Mr. Darcy or with Fagin. They are just cardboard cutouts moving through a plot that you know you will be quizzed on come Tuesday. Really, high school kids are so much unformed clay, unlicked whelps, thinking they are so wise; but they are really just pimply-faced dorks with breaking voices and enough social anxiety to fuel a nuclear sub. 

“I mention this because when we were assigned to read Melville’s Billy Budd, I was hit upside the head with recognition — alone in the class, I knew for the first time what was really going on. I knew why the ‘handsome sailor’ had to die. I had understood the lesson of Mr. Garbaccio’s office and I felt a deep surging of sympathy for Captain Vere. He was not the villain, after all. He was understanding the bigger picture. The lesson was sobering but has been reinforced many times through the years.

“I memorized a lot of facts and dates in high school, was introduced to Shakespeare and Spanish pronouns, but all that is just information — confetti. It didn’t actually mean anything. True, I have drawn on that information a lot, but it is just the boards and nails I can use to construct a sense of the world. What I got from my two points was the only thing I can claim to have genuinely learned in high school.”